EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Sunday, 22/11/2015.
Tuesday, December 08, 2015
Ian Mann on the last day of the Festival and performances by Phronesis with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band conducted by Julian Arguelles, Airelle Besson,Thelonious, and Raph Clarkson's Dissolute Society
Photograph of Phronesis with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band by Tim Dickeson
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2015, SECOND SUNDAY, 22/11/2015
PHRONESIS WITH THE FRANKFURT RADIO BIG BAND conducted by JULIAN ARGUELLES, MILTON COURT
It seems almost impossible to believe that 2015 sees Phronesis celebrating their tenth anniversary. The Anglo-Scandinavian trio led by Danish bassist and featuring English pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish drummer Anton Eger can be considered to be one the leading contemporary jazz acts in the whole of Europe.
I’m pleased to say that the Jazzmann spotted the group’s potential very early on, giving a glowing review, one of the band’s first, to their début album “Organic Warfare” way back in 2006. Since then I’ve been delighted to watch their progress through a series of other excellent albums including both studio and concert recordings. Over the years Phronesis have acquired an impressive reputation for the exciting quality of their live shows and I’ve been privileged to report on several of these, including both club dates and prestigious festival appearances.
One of the band’s most original ideas was the “Pitch Black” concert series which found the trio playing with an astonishingly high level of technical precision in total darkness, the concept for the project being the illness of Hoiby’s sister Jeanette and the gradual onset of total blindness that resulted from her condition.
For the trio’s tenth anniversary they decided to invite Julian Arguelles to arrange a number of their pieces for performance by the trio with a big band. Also a superb saxophonist Arguelles has strong links with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and recently released the album “Let It Be Told” with them, a recording on the Basho label that celebrated the music of the Blue Notes, the South African exiles who moved to London in the late 1960s and who so profoundly influenced the British jazz scene.
Milton Court, with its superb acoustics, was perfectly suited to this early afternoon performance, billed as ‘Major Tenth’ which saw a sharply dressed core trio take to the stage as an equally sartorially elegant conductor took to the podium. The sixteen piece Big Band filed on to join them as the performance began with “Untitled”, a tune that has been in the trio’s repertoire for a number of years but which is still searching for a name. From the outset it was apparent just what a fine job Arguelles had done in his capacity as an arranger, the lush horn sonorities complemented the core trio perfectly on a piece that almost seemed to act as an overture. As Arguelles later pointed out most of Phronesis’ tunes are already complex and full of detail so he had to take particular care with the arrangements to ensure that the music didn’t become too cluttered. Here, as elsewhere, he succeeded brilliantly and also managed to find room for the designated solos to express themselves, in this case Phronesis pianist Ivo Neame and the Big Band’s guitarist Martin Scales.
The arrangement of “Seeding” featured the fiery and fluent trumpeting of soloist Axel Schlosser who was complemented by some rousing big band charts and the dynamic drumming of Anton
Neame’s composition “Charm Defensive” offered a more impressionistic approach with Hoiby deploying his bow on the intro and with the subtle horn voicings featuring a mix of trumpets and flugels plus Rainer Heute’s bass clarinet. The delicate nuances of the playing and arranging ensured that this was an ensemble that really deserved the title ‘jazz orchestra’ rather than the more prosaic ‘big band’. Neame was one of two featured soloists on his own tune, the other being the excellent Christian Jaksjo on trombone.
Hoiby’s rambling, vaguely surreal but always amusing announcements were not always an exact science when it came to tune titles. The fourth piece featured the crisp, clean guitar sound of soloist Scales.
Next up was what sounded like a segue of pieces beginning with an introductory dialogue between Neame on piano and Oliver Leicht on clarinet with Hoiby’s bowed bass providing additional colour.
Arguelles’ arrangement was again richly colourful but also allowed for a passage featuring just the core trio as Neame delivered a typically imaginative solo. From the big band ranks Stefan Weber weighed in strongly on tenor before a solo drum passage from Eger, an absorbing, well constructed and innately musical sequence that seemed to lead into a fresh piece, but again one that alternated between big band and trio passages, the latter giving both Neame and Hoiby the opportunities to shine as soloists.
There was less difficulty in identifying “Urban Control” which began with Neame’s piano motif embellished by the warm textures of massed flugel horns and trombones. The arrangement was subsequently notable for creating something of a ‘band within a band’ with the core Phronesis trio joined by Weber on tenor, Christian Jaksjo on trombone and Axel Schlosser on flugelhorn to form a sextet, the six musicians playing collectively under the baton of Arguelles as well as delivering individual solos, among them a stunning passage of unaccompanied bass from Hoiby.
Before the final number Arguelles took the opportunity of introducing the band members individually as well as thanking the Big Band’s manager Olaf Stadtler and Phronesis manager Sue Edwards who had both helped to co-ordinate the concert.
A superb set closed with the celebratory “Herne Hill” with Jaksjo again the featured soloist. Hoiby, Neame, Eger and Arguelles then left the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation before returning to play an encore with the Big Band. The trio introduced the piece with the dialogue between Hoiby and Eger particularly impressive. Heinz Dieter Sauerborn was the featured Big Band soloist, his incisive soprano playing revealing a distinct Middle Eastern influence.
This concert was a collective triumph for Phronesis, Julian Arguelles and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and a real Festival highlight. It was their second performance together following the première of the arrangements in Frankfurt a couple of days earlier, a show that was recorded I believe. This was music that was far too good to just vanish into the ether, let’s hope that a live album documenting this vividly re-imagined material will be released in due course.
For the record the Big Band lined up;
Heinz Dieter Sauerborn, Oliver Leicht, Tony Lakatos, Rainer Heute, Stefan Weber - reeds
Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer, Axel Schlosser - trumpets and flugelhorns
Gunter Bollmann, Peter Feil, Christian Jaksjo, Manfred Honetschlager - trombones
Martin Scales - guitar
Thomas Heidepriem - acoustic & electric bass
Jean Paul Hochstadter - drums
AIRELLE BESSON, BARBICAN FREESTAGE
Over at the Barbican Freestage I managed to catch most of the set by a quartet led by the young French trumpeter and composer Airelle Besson. Besson plays electric hooked trumpet and her band makes frequent use of electronic devices with Benjamin Moussay deploying a variety of electric keyboards and with vocalist Isobel Sorling also treating the sound of her own voice via an FX unit. The group line up is completed by drummer Fabrice Moreau, a musician who appeared to have a good knowledge of contemporary rhythms.
The quartet’s music had something of a ‘punk jazz’ mentality about it and was punchy and ethereal by turns with Sorling singing wordlessly as well as in French. Her role was primarily that of ‘another instrument’ but at times she was a little too low in the mix which could be a little frustrating for the listener, particularly in the bustling Freestage environment. Besson’s own sound was bright and sharply defined with an obvious debt to electric era Miles Davis and subsequent developments. The title of one piece, “The Painter And The Boxer” seemed to sum up the band’s approach with space like, impressionistic electronic dream sequences punctuated by hard hitting ‘punk jazz’ passages led by the amplified buzz of Besson’s trumpet.
This was a set that was very well received and Besson announced that the band’s début album will be released next year. Shame it’s not out already, I’m sure they’d have sold quite a few to an appreciative Barbican audience.
THELONIOUS, THE VORTEX DOWNSTAIRS
At a very crowded but still decidedly chilly downstairs bar at The Vortex I enjoyed a set from Thelonious, a British quartet dedicated to exploring the music of Thelonious Monk.
The band was co-led by alto saxophonist Martin Speake together with Hans Koller, a musician better known as a pianist but here playing his second instrument the valve trombone. The line up was completed by double bassist Calum Gourlay and the young drummer Dave Dyson.
Squeezed in a the very back of the room my visibility was limited and I was sometimes restricted to looking at the images of the musicians reflected in the venue’s windows. Basically this was a good natured jam that had the informal feeling of a free gig about it despite the nominal entry of a fiver which the indefatigable Oliver Weindling of the Vortex came round to collect in a pint pot.
The music itself was bright and swinging with the crisp rhythms of Gourlay and Dyson providing plenty of solo space for Speake and Koller who both took the opportunity to stretch out fluently. It’s been a long time since I last heard Martin Speake play and I very much enjoyed his contribution here, I’d kind of forgotten just what an accomplished musician he is. Meanwhile Koller displayed a remarkable facility on what was nominally his ‘second instrument’. This band have a monthly Sunday afternoon/early evening residency at the Vortex Downstairs and Koller has clearly been honing his skills on the ‘bone. Gourlay and Dyson both acquitted themselves well on their occasional solo features while providing consistently excellent rhythmic support to their colleagues throughout.
The material avoided most of the obvious Monk items and dug deep into his enormous repertoire, Thelonious wrote some great tunes. “I’m not going to bother to announce them all” said Speake - so I’m certainly not going to try to guess. Whatever they were called it all made for damn good listening. Well done all round, gentlemen.
RAPH CLARKSON’S DISSOLUTE SOCIETY
Trombonist Raphael Clarkson is perhaps best known to UK jazz audiences as a member of WorldService Project, the anarchic quintet led by pianist and composer Dave Morecroft.
Tonight’s performance showed a very different side of Clarkson’s musical personality. Dissolute Society is a very personal project that mixes elements of jazz, classical music and poetry and features a nine piece band including musicians from both the jazz and classical fields including Clarkson’s father Gustav on viola. The line up also includes Fini Bearman (vocals), Alice Zawadzki (violin), Zosia Jagodzinska (cello), Laura Jurd (trumpet), Phil Merriman (keyboards) and Simon Roth (drums). It had also been intended that one of Clarkson’s mentors, the great John Taylor would perform at this concert but the untimely death of ‘JT’ in July 2015 meant that the performance instead became something of a celebration of Taylor’s life and music. The pianist’s role was now filled by guest soloist Huw Warren who had performed in the same room only twenty four hours previously as a member of Perfect Houseplants.
I wasn’t surprised that the Houseplants gig had been a total sell out but I wasn’t expecting the same thing to happen for Clarkson. In fact the Vortex was absolutely rammed again with a huge crowd, many of them fellow musicians, turning out in force to support the young trombonist and his colleagues.
The original words and music that Clarkson had written for this project were intensely personal and often rooted in family history and personal experience. I have to admit to finding the first sequence of linked tunes somewhat impenetrable as Bearman gave voice to Clarkson’s meditations of the effect of the aftermath of World War 2 on his family, a study in grief and loss. Meanwhile “Reborn 4 A.M.” tackled more personal childhood fears.
The theme of grief and loss was extended to embrace the subject of Taylor who had also taught other members of Clarkson’s band, among them Roth and Merriman. Clarkson invited Warren to the stage and recited his own moving poetic tribute to Taylor to the sound of Warren’s piano accompaniment with Clarkson describing Taylor as “a giving musician” and as “a soul that gives and understands”. The performance also included a moving dialogue between Warren’on piano and Clarkson on trombone. This segued into a beautiful group performance of Taylor’s delightful composition “Windfall” with Merriman’s synthesised bass lines helping to support fluent solos from Warren, Clarkson and Jurd.
Taylor was closely and indelibly associated with another much loved fallen giant of British jazz, the trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler. Wheeler’s tune “Kind Folks” was first introduced to Clarkson by Taylor and the band played that next with Bearman singing words that I presume were written by Norma Winstone, though within the context of this project it’s possible that they have been new. Instrumental solos came from Clarkson and Jurd followed by Warren at the piano in tandem with the string section. Roth’s percussion feature was accompanied by synthesised bass before Warren’s unaccompanied piano outro closed an intriguing first set. I have to admit that I found the more familiar sounds of the Taylor and Wheeler songs more enjoyable than the original material, with all due respect to Clarkson John and Kenny did write some great tunes.
Set two included more original material but this time I found myself enjoying it a lot more, thanks in part to improvements in the sound which made Bearman’s voice more distinct and the lyrics more decipherable. “Find A Way Through” extolled the virtues of a positive approach in times of personal adversity and featured a guest vocal from a young rapper who was invited out of the audience, almost certainly unplanned, and who seemed to disappear almost immediately after his performance. The juxtaposition of rap with a string section was intriguing to say the least.
Clarkson’s piece “And It Ends When It Needs To” celebrated the improvisatory artistry of Keith and Julie Tippetts who taught Clarkson at Dartington College and with whom the trombonist first performed at a very early age. The piece began with an improvised dialogue between Clarkson and Jurd but it was the lyrics speaking of “a couple in spirit” and of “mutton chops and rings” that summed up Keith and Julie perfectly as well as singing the praises of the Devon landscape.
Bearman’s gloriously theatrical performance on “I’m Sorry”, dedicated to that very British characteristic of the unnecessary apology for things that are patently not your fault was a definite set highlight, funny and painfully insightful by turns with Bearman sometimes deploying the kind of extended vocal techniques pioneered by Julie Tippetts and others.
Warren returned for a second John Taylor tune, this one definitely with words added by Clarkson but at this juncture I’m not fully certain as to which piece it actually was. Warren played both piano and accordion on this and we also enjoyed a passage of solo cello from Jagodzinska.
The concert had begun with a piece simply called “Opening”. Appropriately it concluded with “Closing” the drum and keyboard intro leading into jagged unison string phrases that underpinned Bearman’s soaring wordless vocals and a trumpet solo from the impressive Laura Jurd.
In the end this performance was a triumph for Clarkson and his colleagues and they were given a great reception by a still jam packed Vortex crowd. Despite my early reservations this was brave, original music that touched many stylistic bases. The music has been recorded and is due to be issued as an album in March, something that should make for very interesting listening.
EFG LJF is a huge event and once again Serious made a fine job of organising a festival which presented performances in venues ranging from 2000 seater concert halls to the tiniest and most intimate of clubs. Everything that I attended pretty much ran to time and and I was very well looked after throughout in my journalistic capacity, so once again my thanks to Sally Reeves and to all the contacts at the individual venues.
The programme was again commendably broad with a wide range of jazz styles represented and with musicians from many countries proving once again that jazz is a truly international language.
I appreciate that the use of Cadogan Hall was probably the consequence of the refurbishment work being undertaken at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room but it was such a beautiful performance space that it would be good to see it being used again as a Jazz Festival venue in future years.
The EFG London Jazz Festival remains a jewel in London’s cultural crown. Long may it continue to be so.
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